Fact is they're missing out on a species that is just peaking in both numbers and size during that period. The ever obliging dab keeps you out and about enjoying yourself and eases that "wishing I was fishing" feeling that grips us during the darkest time of year.
Providing you're casting on to sand, it doesn't matter if you're fishing from a pier, breakwater, surf beach or rock ledge, the dabs will be there. They'll even move a little way inside estuary mouths, though they won't tolerate long periods of acidic flood water.
Dabs aren't exactly shoal fish, but they are prone to "ganging up" on surf beaches and then moving across the sand with a new flooding tide as a scattered group working just behind the furthest breakers. If you put a bait in to this area it won't be long before you get a bite or two. They also tend to hole up in any deeper gullies and channels that run parallel along the beach. During ebb (out going) tides they push much further out and you need to cast longer range to relocate them. They won't risk getting cut off as the tide recedes. On deeper beaches, they will be well scattered, but often concentrate in better numbers in deeper holes between sandbanks, or tight in to the demarcation line where shingle meets sand.
If you're pier or breakwater fishing, then longer casts pick up occasional fish, but it often pays to fish the ends of the piers and breakwaters and cast downtide to the edge of any tidal current that is created as the flowing tide passes by the end of the structure. Dabs like to sit right on the edge of these currents just inside the slacker water and intercept water borne food as it passes by.
In deepish water over 3-metres deep, dabs aren't too worried by rough weather and lumpy seas, they just continue to feed. It's a different matter though if you're fishing a surf beach under such tough conditions. If the surf is high, then the dabs will be at extreme range and casts of a genuine 100-metres plus will be required to maintain contact.
Neither are dabs too concerned about the size of tide. They'll feed during the biggest spring tides and the smallest neaps. What does turn them on is a sea that's been easing down after a good gale. A couple of days after the blow eases can see masses of dabs tight inshore enjoying the glut of food that's been freed from the sand by the heavy seas. That said, they don't like heavily coloured water and prefer a clearing sea with suspended sand and sediment at a minimum.
Though fair numbers of dabs can be caught during daytime, even bright sunlight, you'll catch more and better quality dabs during darkness off the beaches. Deeper water off breakwaters and piers isn't quite so critical and daytime catches remain fairly consistent.
Dabs aren't what you'd call fussy eaters. Their day-to-day diet is a mix of worms, lugworm, white rag, smashed up shellfish like razorfish, cockles and sand clams, small crabs, shrimps and even small fish, for they, like most sea fish, are a predator in their own right. In fact, the very biggest dabs are often found inshore during periods when sprat shoals are tight to shore during flat calm seas in the middle of high-pressure weather systems.
This gives us a clue. Because of their varied diet, they will often take a combination of two baits better than one individual bait. Use worm as the main ingredient, but try tipping it off with strips of mackerel, herring or better still sprat. Also try tippets of razorfish, cockle, mussel and especially small tellin clams found after storms washed up on the beaches. These can be a real killer bait. Often this slight difference in presentation can literally double your catch. It's also a fact that the bigger fish tend to fall to combination baits.
Another trait of dabs is that they like a stale bait. High mackerel, herring, mussel and razorfish are all good, but the best by far is a dried black lugworm. By placing gutted black lug on fresh pieces of newspaper and soaking out the moisture you're left with something that resembles a liquorice stick. Tough, rather smelly, but unbelievably effective. It dies though, tend to pull out hordes of smaller dabs and not so many sizeable ones.
Through late February and early March, a few bigger than average dabs hang around the mouths of estuaries. They are partial to the first peeler crabs and I've had quite a few dabs well over the pound using this trick when few if any anglers even consider fishing the estuaries once the flounder have thinned out.
You can also increase your catch numbers by copying our coarse fishing colleagues and employing swim feeders. If you cast continually to the same area, the scent trail will travel a long way with the passing tide and you'll pull in dabs from great distances. It also attracts additional dogfish, flounders, rockling, pout and school bass and makes for a busy session.
The feeders can be proper freshwater patterns filled with mashed mackerel, worm and bread, the bread acting as binder and scent soaker. Alternatively, you can make very effective feeders out of plastic film canisters with a few holes drilled in them, plus a hole in the base and top for attachment.
The feeder is not ideally used attached to the rig body line. It works much better if you use a long tailed lead and slide the feeder on to the long tail wire, but leaving enough room to ease off the cap and refill with groundbait when required. The feeder casts much cleaner and obviously far further when attached in this way to the lead weight.
Simply constructed rigs always best for dabs. For long range fishing during rougher seas or during an ebb tide, I prefer a two-hook rig with bait clips on allowing the baits to be clipped upwards to streamline casting and maintain bait presentation. Three-hook rigs without bait clips are best during flood tides when fish are much closer and also for casting off breakwaters and piers. Rig body line should be 50 to 60lbs to cover casting stresses.
If you use Powergum or mono stop knots to trap the beads and swivel for hook trace attachment instead of fixed trace crimps, then you can move the hook trace positions on the rigs at will by sliding them up or down on the line. Mostly, dabs want a bait hard on the bottom, so having a hook trace tight behind the lead weight, another about 18ins (45cms) up from that, plus a third another 18ins (45cms) higher to make a three-hook rig works well with most fish falling to the lowest hooks. If you fish a slightly slack line though when fishing at close range, the higher bait also drops to the seabed and you'll pick up extra fish. The two-hook rig is just the same with the top hook removed and bait clips added.
Dabs like a bait that swirls around in the tide. For this reason hook trace strength needs to be no more than 15lb test. I like a supple line like Amnesia clear. You can also add a few coloured beads, especially luminous ones, if the water is clearish and you're fishing daylight, just above the hook.
Hooks need to be Aberdeen patterns and keep them small in size. The Mustad Aberdeen 3261 in sizes 2 or 4 are especially good. I also favour the Kamasan Aberdeen's.
Dabs have quite a unique bite characteristic. If you intently watch the rod tip, you see a short series of taps. Usually three or four in a short burst, then a pause, then another series of taps. Don't be in too much hurry to strike, as dabs will invariably hook themselves against the weight of the lead. On the other hand, don't wait forever as you don't want the little flatties to swallow the hook. I'd suggest waiting until after the second series of taps, then gently lift up the rod and start winding in. There is no need to strike. You might miss the odd fish here and there, but who cares, better a lost fish than a gut hooked one.
Tackle tends to be the standard beachcasters, and medium sized reels loaded with 15lb line and a 50lb casting leader due to the need to cast long range during most session, plus to combat the rigours of surf and sand abrasion. However, during calmer seas, switch to a light spinning or carp rod, small fixed-spool reel and just 8lb to 10lb line. You can reduce the rig body line strength to just 30lb and switch to 2oz leads. It's much more fun.
It's worth carrying a small pair of artery forceps rather than the sea angler's obligatory long-nosed pliers to remove deeper hooks. The forceps get in to the tight mouth of the dab much easier and do no damage if used correctly and with care.
A good dab weighs around the pound and most are less than half that size, but a dab session is a social occasion enjoyed with a mate or two when the plans for the forthcoming summers fishing are laid. My fishing calendar is full twelve months of the year, but I still find time for a dab bash or two to help break up that tedious late winter spell until spring arrives and there are bigger fish to target.